Five Community Members Honored at St. Thomas Day Awards

Each year, the University of St. Thomas celebrates St. Thomas Day, which recognizes the extraordinary contributions that members of the St. Thomas community have made to the university and the wider community.

The University of St. Thomas celebrated its annual St. Thomas Day Wednesday, May 8. The event honors recipients of the Monsignor James Lavin Award, Professor of the Year, Humanitarian  Award, Tommie Award and Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna Award.

St. Thomas Day recognizes the extraordinary contributions that members of the St. Thomas community have made to the university and the wider community. The awards that are presented on St. Thomas Day were instituted over a period of 60 years.

St. Thomas Day events began with Mass in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas led by Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn, chair of the university’s Board of Trustees. A dinner and awards program followed in Woulfe Alumni Hall, Anderson Student Center. More than 500 members of the St. Thomas community attended.

Father Dennis Dease, president of the University of St. Thomas, was pleasantly stunned at the St. Thomas Day awards Wednesday night when he was presented with the Distinguished Alumnus Award.

This marked the first year the recipient of the award was kept hush-hush until the night of the ceremony.

Dr. Rachel Wobschall, executive director of Alumni and Constituent Relations at St. Thomas, said, “The Alumni Association Board of Directors unanimously nominated and approved Father Dease. We decided to keep it a secret because of Father Dease’s humility − we thought he might not accept it if he knew about it.”

Dease's brothers, sisters and other family members showed up at the dinner to surprise him, but he did not read anything into their appearance other than to think they were there to help him celebrate his final St. Thomas Day as president. He also did not read the printed program at his table, listing him as the Distinguished Alumnus Award winner, so when his named was announced he had a surprised look on his face. He received two standing ovations from the capacity crowd In Woulfe – one after his name was announced and the other after a video was played.

Nominations for the Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna, Humanitarian and Lavin awards are welcome throughout the year but are required by July 1 for consideration for the following year’s St. Thomas Day. For forms and more information on how to submit a nomination, visit the Alumni Association website.

Distinguished Alumnus Award

Father Dennis Dease took office as president of St. Thomas on July 1, 1991, but he has a longer association – nearly 50 years – with the university and the St. Paul Seminary.

A native of Corcoran, Minn., he taught theology at the College of St. Thomas and served as spiritual director and dean of formation at the St. Paul Seminary. Ordained into the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1969, Father Dease has myriad degrees: a B.A. in Latin and philosophy, a Master of Divinity degree from the St. Paul Seminary, an M.A. degree in counseling psychology from St. Thomas and a Ph.D. in systematic theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

In 1982 he joined the St. Thomas Board of Trustees. He served rector of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis from 1985 to 1991.

The university grew significantly and made many notable achievements during his 22-year tenure, including:

  • Establishment of a Minneapolis campus and constructed four buildings for programs in business, law, education and professional psychology
  • Construction of a dozen major buildings on the St. Paul campus, including a student center, an athletic and recreation complex, a science and engineering center, a business building, two apartment-style residence halls and a parking ramp
  • A new campus in Rome (2000)
  • New academic programs in law, Catholic studies, mechanical and electrical engineering, entrepreneurship and Irish studies, and quadrupled study-abroad participation with semesterlong programs based in London and Rome and many opportunities during January Term
  • A tripled student-of-color population as well as a tripled number of international students.
  • $765 million raised in two capital campaigns – $250 million in the Ever Press Forward campaign, which concluded in 2001, and $515 million in the Opening Doors campaign, which came to a close last October.
  • Accreditation from national or international associations for all major graduate programs.

Dease will retire as president of St. Thomas June 30 this year.


Professor of the Year

Dr. Mark Neuzil, a member of the Communication and Journalism Department, will receive this year’s Professor of the Year Award. Neuzil, who joined St. Thomas in 1993, also serves as director of St. Thomas’ Office for Mission and is an adviser to

He is the author or co-author of four books with environmental themes: Mass Media and Environmental Conflict: America's Green Crusades, co-written with William Kovarik; Views of the Mississippi: The Photographs of Henry Bosse, which won a Minnesota Book Award; A Spiritual Field Guide: Meditations for the Outdoors, co-written with Dr. Bernard Brady; and The Environment and the Press: From Adventure Writing to Advocacy.

Neuzil earned a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University, and master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Minnesota.


Humanitarian of the Year

Charles Lugemwa ’03 M.M.S.E. will be honored with the 2013 Humanitarian of the Year Award for his work with Hope Medical Clinics. Lugemwa co-founded the Ugandan clinics with Father Dennis Dease.

A native Ugandan, Lugemwa serves as in-country director of Hope Medical Clinics Uganda and is manager of data management in the IT Division of the Uganda Revenue Authority.

Hope Medical Clinics Uganda provides people access to health care services, regardless of income. The organization operates clinics in the Kampala suburbs of Ndejje and Kasubi, and the Ruth Gaylord Maternity and Pediatric Hospital, which opened in January 2012.

Lugemwa lives in Kampala, Uganda, with his wife, Maria, and their three children.


Monsignor James Lavin Award

Don Traxler ’50, retired president of Northern Star Co., is the recipient of this year’s Monsignor James Lavin Award. Established in 1994, the award honors a volunteer for his or her service to the St. Thomas Alumni Association. Traxler has served the alumni community for decades as a volunteer and active participant, most notably as a member of the Old Guard and its annual reunion committees.

As a student at St. Thomas, he majored in business administration – general business management and economics. The parents of nine children, Traxler and his wife, Dolores, have provided scholarship support to St. Thomas students, and Traxler has been a member of the President’s Council since 1986.


Tommie Award

Eyo Ekpo of Andover, Minn., was voted recipient of the Tommie Award by St. Thomas faculty, staff and students. He is an entrepreneurship and finance double major. He also is a member of Beta Gamma Sigma, an international business honor society; Delta Epsilon Sigma, a national scholastic honor society; and Delta Sigma Pi, a professional business fraternity; HANA, a multicultural student organization; Practicing Entrepreneurs; Senior Legacy; Real Estate Society; Undergraduate Business Council; and Tommie Ambassadors.

An athlete in varsity football and varsity track and field, Ekpo also served as a representative on the Student Athletic Advisory Committee. In track and field, he was named an NCAA All-American four times, to the All-America Academic team three times and a national runner-up for the CoSIDA First-Team All-America.

The Tommie Award is sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs and is awarded annually to a senior who best represents the ideals of St. Thomas Aquinas through scholarship, leadership and campus involvement.